The Congress seems on a mission to reduce INDIA bloc leaders to insignificant regional faces in what appears to be a well-calculated move.
On the verge of its decline and in the face of continuous rout in election results, the Congress is out on the streets, traversing the breadth of the country from Manipur to Mumbai through the ongoing Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra.
The Congress remains the principal face of the INDIA bloc, which aims to take on the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP-led NDA in the upcoming 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
However, much of the electoral outcome may depend upon Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee’s support of the Opposition alliance.
The state of West Bengal comprises a whopping 42 seats in the Lok Sabha, and is instrumental in deciding the outcomes of the elections.
Currently, the TMC has 22 of these seats, the BJP has 18, and the Congress has only two. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) won no Lok Sabha seat from West Bengal in 2019.
Building walls instead of bridges
To challenge the formidable Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the INDIA bloc aims to reduce the BJP to a single digit, or even zero, in the state. But this is not possible as long as the leaders of the alliance continue to build walls instead of bridges.
Mamata Banerjee has emerged as a formidable force in West Bengal, seemingly uniting the Bengali public by invoking the state’s history and tactfully countering what she has repeatedly alleged to be the BJP’s divisive and hateful politics.
The BJP, on the other hand, has made swift progress in the state, winning as many as 18 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Noteworthy among them were Bangaon, Alipurduar, Balurghat, Bankura, Barrackpore, Bishnupur, Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Hooghly, Medinipur, Ranaghat, and Purulia.
These were prominent seats that flipped from Trinamool Congress to BJP, and some of these seats are where the Congress hopes to make a heavy impact in a one-on-one contest against the BJP.
This has not been taken very well so far by the top leadership of the TMC, which favours granting only two seats the Congress won in the last elections.
In the wake of repeated demands from the Congress, Banerjee’s party even declared that it would contest all seats on its own in the 2024 polls while ensuring her support for the INDIA bloc at the national level.
Interestingly, Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra passed through some of these constituencies, and the show of strength by the Congress attracted thousands of people on the streets in Alipurduar, Cooch Behar, and Jalpaiguri.
The Yatra also had an impressive turnout in the Darjeeling district, where almost the entire city of Siliguri came to a standstill and listened as Rahul Gandhi invoked the history of Bengal, asserting that it was their responsibility to show direction to the country.
At a press conference in the Murshidabad district, the Congress expressed optimism about reaching a mutually acceptable seat-sharing arrangement with the TMC.
Despite the TMC chief’s initial reluctance to allocate seats to the Congress, the grand old party’s general secretary Jairam Ramesh highlighted the importance of collaborative efforts to unseat the BJP government at the Centre.
He welcomed Mamata Banerjee’s commitment to the INDIA bloc, emphasising the common goal of defeating the BJP in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections.
But soon after the Yatra entered Jharkhand from West Bengal, Banerjee hit back at the Congress once again. Without mincing words, she said the Congress would not be able to win even 40 seats in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. She also blamed the party for arriving in West Bengal to stir up Muslim voters.
Mamata Banerjee is key to Opposition unity as they take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in about two months, particularly after Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s recent return to the BJP-led NDA.
Her role in the INDIA bloc should ideally extend far beyond the state of West Bengal; she can be a galvanising force on the national stage, inspiring voters for change and swinging a vast majority of women voters in particular.
The Congress has failed to acknowledge the importance of leaders of their alliance on the national stage and seems on a mission to reduce them to insignificant regional faces. This appears like a well-calculated move on behalf of the grand old party.
By making the 2024 elections a bipolar contest, which means only two parties or personalities will effectively be in battle, or at least be projected so, the Congress’ Rahul-vs-Modi may attract some young and first-time voters, along with a vast chunk of Muslim voters.
Still, he will fall far short of coming anywhere close to challenging the tally of the BJP-led NDA.
That’s perhaps why the Congress uses CPI(M) to taunt Mamata Banerjee repeatedly. With Nitish Kumar gone to the NDA side in Bihar, the dynamics have been altered, and the INDIA bloc will fall far short of reaching the halfway mark even in its most favourable projections.
The question then arises: Why is the Congress not accommodating its regional allies? The answer may well be that it does not want to do so at the expense of its own wipeout, like Mamata Banerjee’s projection of only 40 seats overall.
So, Rahul Gandhi-led Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra is reigniting the spirits of its cadres, filling them with a fire that the Congress hopes will remain alive even if the party is completely routed in the poll results.
The grand old party does not mind irritating its allies in the process; its survival is paramount at this juncture.
(Saket Suman is an independent journalist and the author of The Psychology of a Patriot. He followed the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra from Imphal in Manipur to Dhanbad in Jharkhand for 21 days. Views expressed are strictly personal.)